Buncombe County Commission

“We’re passing the buck. … We need a comprehensive plan.”

— Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt

Despite Buncombe County’s lengthy history of controversy over land-use regulations, a decision last week to establish community-based planning passed with only a few dissenting words.

On April 8, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to allow communities to establish local planning districts — including zoning, if they wish — within township or fire-service-area boundaries.

Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey (a staunch foe of countywide zoning) made the motion to establish the districts. After a bit of discussion, it passed easily, with only Commissioner David Gantt (a vigorous proponent of countywide zoning) opposed.

The vote was one of three significant actions the commissioners took last week; they also made a controversial appointment to the WNC Regional Air Quality Board and revised the county’s noise ordinance.

How to create a planning district

The proposed ordinance, endorsed by the county Planning Board, was presented to the commissioners during their March 25 retreat (see “Voters gain, lose ground in planning proposal,” March 19 Xpress).

After making a few changes, the commissioners adopted a resolution that includes the following requirements:

• at least 20 percent of the voters in the proposed district — which can be either a township or a fire-service area — must sign a petition asking for a community-based planning district;

• the petition must include the signatures of individuals and/or corporations that collectively own at least one-third of the land in question, not counting already-zoned areas and government land:

• once the Board of Commissioners receives a petition, it will direct the Planning Department to help the community craft a “comprehensive community plan”;

• the plan may include zoning;

• the community shall hold at least one meeting to ensure that the plan represents a “consensus of community opinion”;

• the Planning Board will prepare a zoning ordinance in concert with the community plan and may hold a public hearing (how this would be decided is not spelled out);

• once the Planning Board certifies an ordinance, the Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing;

• after hearing public input, the commissioners may send the ordinance back to the Planning Board for possible revision before the commissioners decide whether to adopt, modify or reject the proposal.

Planning move sparks debate

During the discussion of community-based planning, Commissioner Patsy Keever said she was “a little uncomfortable” with a change — made after the Planning Board had submitted its recommendation — allowing corporate holdings to count toward the one-third of land in a district whose owners’ signatures are needed for a petition to be valid.

Ramsey tried to explain the reasoning.

“Basically, what this is allowing folks to do is allowing it to be counted toward that threshold, so that you would not allow a corporation’s land to be included,” he said. “In many ways, it would be more difficult to reach the threshold of 20 percent of registered voters plus one third of the land, so this is a mechanism to make it effectively easier for community-based planning than if that alternative wasn’t available.”

What Ramsey didn’t explain is how giving corporations (which might own a significant percentage of an area’s land) a say would make it easier to institute community-based planning.

Keever questioned County Planner Jim Coman, who said he agreed with Ramsey, adding that it’s fairer for more people who own property to be involved in the process. She then asked County Attorney Joe Connolly whether he agreed with that statement, and he said he did.

After Ramsey made the motion to adopt community-based planning, however, Gantt weighed in. The Board of Commissioners, he pointed out, had approved a version of community-based planning 25 years ago, which only two communities (Beaverdam and Limestone) have made use of. In addition, Gantt took issue with the requirement that the owners of at least one-third of the land in a proposed planning district must buy into the idea, noting that land-use decisions also affect people who can’t afford to own land.

“To me, we’re going backwards,” Gantt observed. “I think it’s time we just take the big picture and take the leadership and let’s do some zoning. We need to talk about it. We need to get it done. We’re passing the buck. … We need a comprehensive plan.”

Keever said she agrees with Gantt but that everyone realizes the current board won’t adopt countywide zoning.

“At least this gives people a tool to begin thinking about what they want to do in their own community,” said Keever. “I don’t know if it will work or not, but I’ll support it.”

Vice Chairman David Young — a longtime proponent of community-based planning — also voiced his approval, saying, “I, too, am in favor of this and really think it’s a great start to allowing people to decide what they want in their communities and helping to develop their communities.”

Ramsey said little, other than adding his support for the proposal and declaring that the commissioners were not passing the buck. Commissioner Bill Stanley remained silent.

And whereas previous attempts to establish zoning or other land-use controls in the county — or even to discuss those loaded topics — have drawn capacity crowds, only one citizen spoke out against community-based planning during the public-comment portion of the meeting. As Young shook his head, Leicester resident Alan Ditmore told the commissioners that community-based planning constitutes murder, because it would deny people their right to housing. Those people would then become homeless and die, Ditmore declared.

How loud is loud?

The commissioners unanimously decided to change the county’s noise ordinance after hearing reports that the existing ordinance — which relied on decibel levels — was hard to enforce.

Charlie Mann, chairman of the Reorganization Commission (a group of retirees that researches issues for the commissioners) told the board that his group had consulted with UNC’s Institute of Government and determined that a “clever lawyer” could pick apart a case based on a decibel meter. Mann said his group supports the new ordinance, which is similar to one on the books in Greensboro.

Sheriff’s Department attorney Julie Kepple said the Sheriff’s Department also supports the change, noting, “It really takes a rocket scientist to figure out the decibel system.”

Under the new ordinance, a county resident can take out a warrant at the magistrate’s office if they find their neighbor’s activity to be “unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary.” The ordinance contains a list of noises that — if annoying enough — are prohibited, including: horns, whistles, pets, firearms, compressed-air devices, gongs and the “shouting and crying” of peddlers, hawkers and vendors.

A number of activities are exempt, including commercial and industrial enterprises (except electronically amplified sound), farm operations, government facilities and shooting ranges (provided that a number of conditions are met).

In other business, the commissioners learned from Finance Department staffer Diane Masologites that the county’s $83.7 million general cash-and-investment portfolio is meeting the county’s investment objectives. During the first seven months of fiscal year 2002-03, however, interest earnings have plummeted 54 percent — from $939,000 to $432,000 — compared to the same period in the last fiscal year.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners went into closed session to discuss a potential legal matter and an economic development item.

“Fine Christian gentleman” wins air-quality seat

On a split vote, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners appointed Arden resident Britt Lovin to the WNC Regional Air Quality Board. According to his application, Lovin is vice president/general manager of Andy Oxy Co. in Asheville and serves on A-B Tech’s Welding Advisory Board.

The decision came despite a last-minute lobbying effort by three air-quality advocates on behalf of Bruce O’Connell, a managing partner of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“If you do not select someone who understands air quality’s effect on our health and on our local economy, you’re doing a disservice to that agency, and you’re going to set it back,” predicted Dr. Clay Ballantine. “Air quality is our economy,”, he declared, adding that O’Connell has a “balanced perspective.”

“There is a minority within this business community that is seeking to have someone from their group put onto that board, and you all are probably receiving a lot of political pressure about this, but I want to make sure that you understand that there are a lot of other people in this community who also want to see that this board’s function is preserved,” continued Ballantine.

Maria Wise of the Canary Coalition spoke in favor of O’Connell, as did Hazel Fobes (who chairs the grassroots group Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air). Fobes also charged that two county commissioners are under the “command” of the “crowd … [of] independent business owners” (a reference to the Council of Independent Business Owners) and AdvantageWest (a regional economic-development commission). Those groups, she said, had told the two commissioners to vote for Lovin.

CIBO Executive Director Mike Plemmons said later that although Lovin is a member of CIBO, the group had made no formal endorsement (though he did note that CIBO encourages its members to apply for board appointments). Plemmons also scoffed at Fobes’ assertion that his organization controls two county commissioners.

“She’s just trying to slam us,” insisted Plemmons about Fobes. “That’s essentially all that it is.”

AdvantageWest CEO Dale Carroll said his organization hasn’t endorsed any candidate for the board.

Near the end of the meeting, Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes polled the commissioners. Commissioners David Gantt and Patsy Keever voted for O’Connell, while Chairman Nathan Ramsey, Vice Chairman David Young and Commissioner Bill Stanley supported Lovin.

After voting for Lovin, Young cast the process as an exercise in democracy, saying he’d received numerous calls in support of both candidates. Young said he appreciated the citizens’ input, describing it as “supportive of their government and trying to make a difference.”

“I hate to be considered an ogre if I don’t vote the way you want me to,” said Stanley, adding: “I’m going to vote for Britt Lovin. I think he’s a fine Christian gentleman.”

The other candidates — David Craft, Dean Kahl and Don Yelton — received no votes. Gantt explained that Craft had withdrawn his name; Chairman Ramsey, an early candidate, withdrew his name to avoid conflict with his fellow board members; and Planning Board member Bill Newman (who also had applied) said he’d withdrawn his name after deciding he had too many other commitments.

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